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Captain Stefan’s Corelli


This is a riot of a book. If you’re interested in tenors it’s a must, if you’re interested in Franco Corelli you’ve probably already got it. If tenors’ sex lives are your thing, then you’ll learn a lot more than you probably want to know about tenorial orgasms, il pompino bolognese (Google it) and the like. Oh, and there’s quite a lot of tenor history thrown in. Don’t expect analysis or conventional referencing – this is not an objective academic tome. Stefan Zucker, self-styled opera fanatic, former baby-sitter to Franco Corelli, only begetter of the Bel Canto Society, radio personality extraordinaire, sometime holder of the Guiness Book of Records highest known tenor note, is not a conventional biographer.

I’ve been a fan of Stefan Zucker for many years. His Bel Canto Society has produced countless recordings and articles on both the greatest and most obscure opera singers – and with the minimum outside financial help. I was very happy to acknowledge his work in my Tenor: History of  Voice, though what most appeals is his complete obsession with opera singers and his no holds barred opinions on everything from larynx position and falsetto to sex and squillo.

It’s a maddening book – stuffed full of anecdote and facts that you won’t find anywhere else, but devilishly difficult to find your way around. The first volume is more coherent (and less salacious) and there’s a third one to come which will focus on singers who aren’t Corelli. Stefan and I have exchanged books in the past but we haven’t corresponded for a while, so I was astonished to discover that one of his chapters is devoted to my tenor book – which he basically seems to have enjoyed apart from the falsetto question. He calls what pre-chested top C tenors do at the top head voice, whereas my interpretation of the sources suggests falsetto (though I have to confess that as a tenor myself I don’t have a real falsetto and if I could sing a top C it would be in head voice). It’s possible we’re both guilty of over-insistence on our beliefs, and tenors are never if not opinionated. He points out a few inaccuracies and mis-attributions in my effort (but tactfully ignores the main howler which I corrected in the paperback reprint, which referred to the top Cs in  Traviata rather than Tell (I must have been asleep at the wheel there).

I can’t wait to see what Stefan has to say about Corelli’s contemporaries and successors in Volume 3. Unsurprisingly, he has a tendency to compare them unfavourably with his hero and he doesn’t pull any punches if the extract on Jonas Kaufmann published in a recent Newsletter is anything to go by.  I’m wondering what he’ll have to say about Rolando Villazon, whom I had the chance to interview for a TV programme a few years ago. When I arrived at the Covent Garden rehearsal room Villazon was sitting on the floor doing a piece to camera on  Corelli. At the end of the first take I couldn’t resist saying that he hadn’t mentioned Corelli’s legs, which were reckoned by some to be the best pair ever seen on a tenor (a bit of a risk as we hadn’t yet been introduced). He began again: …and Franco Corelli, he had it all, including two of the best pairs of legs in the business…then immediately realising what he’d said, he added…though he only used one pair at a time, of course. I can’t remember if that made the final cut, but it set the scene for a totally memorable encounter.  It was enormous fun, with Rolando fizzing away the whole time. So much energy! I’d taken the precaution of bringing along my copy of his Massenet & Gounod album and he agreed to sign it as long as I signed his copy of my book (that was a surprise). Of course, he never just signs, so I’m now the proud possessor of a Villazon cartoon of the two of us talking tenor stuff.


Some academic writing is objective to the point where you wonder if the author actually likes the topic. There’s a lot to be said for the informed fanaticism of the dedicated enthusiast. Combine this with an obsessive collecting mentality and you have another of my favourite institutions: The Record Collector. I have to own up to a certain nerdy tendency to ‘collect’ old recordings, but it’s only the singing I’m interested in and a list of serial numbers of old 78s will make my eyes glaze over. But it is exactly this attention to minute detail that drives many of the contributors to The Record Collector (don’t forget the definite article, as I did on the first printing of my tenor book – the article-less publication is a different kettle of vocal fry all together). You won’t find hundreds of footnotes, but you will find detailed, meticulous writing by collectors who love what they are writing about. The bizarre magic of the serial numbers and so on is there, but (sometimes almost incidentally) there are also wonderful insights into the singing of the early twentieth century. There’s a terrific bias towards tenors which suited me just fine, and there’s an annual CD of long forgotten singing which never fails to get the juices going.  I don’t write write about tenors these days, but I may return to the fray in the future, and if I do I don’t doubt that the Bel Canto Society and the Record Collector will be essential reading.

Both of these extraordinary resources operate on a shoestring in a world dominate by big conglomerates, so if you’re interested in the history of singing (early music students take note!) sign up for a subscription.



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